Giles, Lord Ponsonby – “In Darker Africa”

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August 2, 2012 by jamesessj

Chapter II – The Vision

I awoke to the sound of my own heart breaking.  I wondered how it was that I knew, beyond a certainty, that my wife Pernilla had betrayed me — for she was in London, so far as I knew, and here I was in darker Africa, inside a canvas tent that I had secured with locks, zippers, nets, traps, and a ten-foot moat in order to protect myself from lions, hyenas, and the members of my own expedition, nearly all of whom would have, given the opportunity, have plunged a spear into my breast.

I poured myself a drop of sherry.  It was more than a drop, if I am honest, it was a snifterful, but the dissolution of man’s marriage is not to be taken lightly.  Pernilla and I had been married for twenty-three years, out of which perhaps four could be portrayed as other than ruinous; but that is a success rate of seventeen percent, which, for a modern coupling, is just this side of a gold medal.

The sherry calmed my nerves.  Or deadened them, for when next I awoke it was late afternoon, and from the doorway was sounding the familiar tap-tap-tap of pebbles on the canvas — the method by which Botuna attracted my attention, for no one in his right mind would dare hazard the tent’s defenses.  I opened the tent’s front flap (a process necessitating most of the rest of the afternoon) and saw Botuna sitting on the ground beyond the moat, his legs crossed, his arms crossed, his eyes crossed — he suffered a genetic condition — and a strange-looking African woman sitting next to him.  By strange I do not mean odd, I mean unfamiliar, for she was unknown to me.  Her face was a darker shade than most Africans I had seen, and she wore a covering of the most vibrant colors I had ever lain eyes on, reds, golds, purples, as if she were royalty.  If my wife was a three on a scale of one to ten, this vision before me was easily a five or a six.

The Lord closes one tent flap, I said to myself, but He opens another.

I called out to Botuna.  “Yes, what is it?  Who is this woman?  Is she married?  Does she have a boyfriend?  Is she into white chaps?”

Botuna stood and bowed.  First to me, then to the vision at his side.  “Bwana, I present Maia, daughter of Hecta, chief of the Resta tribe, into whose lands we have come.”

I frowned, contemplating this new information.  I had not heard of the Resta tribe — but then I had never heard of Africa, either, prior to the previous winter.  I had learned, over the course of the three weeks of our expedition, that African tribes could be remarkably territorial, and that they frequently demanded tribute from any passer-through; and the whiter the passer, the steeper the tribute.

“What does her father want?” I asked Botuna knowingly.

But it was the vision who replied.  “I speak English,” she said.  “You may converse with me.”

I stared at her in wonder.  She possessed a lovely accent, not unlike that of an angel, or what I had always imagined an angel to sound like, never having encountered one in the flesh, or whatever angels have instead of flesh.  She spoke with such self-assurance that I did not for a moment doubt her provenance.  Truly she was the daughter of a chieftain.  I desired, in that moment, only to know her better.

“I desire to know you better,” I said.

“Most men do,” she answered.  “What do you bring to the stew that they didn’t?”

“I am white,” I said, playing my trump card early in the game.

“So was Burton, and so was Stanley,” she said.  “You’re not the first imperialist in these parts.  I learned my English from Livingstone.  My German from Peters.  My French from du Chaillu.  My Italian from de Brazza.  My Russian from –”

I held up my hand.  “Yes, yes,” I said.  “It would seem tongues are a specialty of yours.”

She smiled enigmatically.  “One hates to blow one’s own horn,” she purred.

“My own horn, I prefer to have blown by another,” I said naughtily.

“Mr. Ponsonby, you are quite out of order,” she said, though the look on her face told me I was thoroughly in order, and advancing with alacrity.

“If I have given offense then I apologize,” I said.

“It is not me you have offended,” she corrected me, “but my father.  If he were here and had heard your insouciance he would surely have boxed your ears!”

I crossed my own arms smugly.  “No one has boxed my ears since my mother,” I said.  “And the boys at St. Michael’s, and the lads at Cambridge, and the queen when I met with her to discuss this expedition –”

Her eyes widened.  They were already set so far apart, I feared they might, chameleon-like, migrate to the sides of her head.  “You have met the Queen?” she exclaimed.

“I have had that honor,” I said formally.

She looked up to the sky, and held her hands doubled over her breast.  A faraway look came into her eyes.  “Her Majesty!” she breathed.

I ought to have straightened her out by mentioning that the queen I’d met who’d boxed my ears was not Victoria Regina, but Arthur Withan, a notorious homosexual of London society; but I sensed an advantage and chose to press it.

“Aye,” I said.  “Victoria herself.”

“What is she like?” inquired Maia, her voice quavering.  She was like a Chelsea girl asking after her favorite cricketer.  “Tell me everything!”

“I should be happy to,” I said, with a gallant little bow.  “But — mayhaps you’d be more comfortable…this side of the moat?”

(Here my heart had rather overcome my head, for in the face of this vision of African beauty, I had forgotten not only my vows to my wife — nullified as they may have been by her behavior, or misbehavior — but also my Secret Shame.  I could not have indulged my passions without revealing myself for what I was.  Though in this instance the candle may have been worth the game.)

Botuna, who’d stood curiously silent during this entire exchange, at this instant interjected:  “Bwana, Hecta is a powerful chieftain –”

I smiled at him as a parent will smile at a child who does not understand what he has seen, when opening the door his parents’ bedroom at an inopportune moment.

“The chief will welcome this expansion of his daughter’s…wealth of knowledge, Botuna.”

“He speaks true,” Maia said.  She turned her oversized brown eyes upon me.  “But tell me, Mr. Ponsonby, one thing, if you will.”

“Anything, my dear.”

“How fares the Queen’s youngest, Roderick?  The last word we received was less than encouraging!”

I thought quickly, for I’d gathered no intelligence on a young Prince Roderick.  I was not one of those royal-watchers who follow the Queen and her offspring with the sort of devotion one ought to reserve for religious matters.  Nor was I one of those religious figures who follow scripture with the sort of devotion one ought to reserve for Queen and Country.  In short, I’d heard no word — not even an “a” or a “the” — regarding Prince Roderick.  But to say so was to undo my advantage.  Instead I extemporized:  “It was touch and go there for a while, but the lad’s recovered nicely and by all reports is healthy as an ox, terrorizing mother and family alike!”

The vision’s lips parted in a smile that grew larger and larger.  As with her eyes, I feared her mouth might wrap down around her chin and consume her entire face, but then I realized that her smile was not one of shared joy at the miraculous recuperation of the prince, but the wolfish grin of the predator.  I have never seen it on a predator, but I have seen it on my wife.

“There is no Roderick,” Maia spat.  “Victoria has nine children:  Victoria Adelaide Mary, Albert Edward, Alice Maud Mary, Alfred Ernest Albert, Helena Augusta Victoria, Louise Caroline Alberta, Arthur William Patrick, Leopold George Duncan, and Beatrice Mary Victoria.  You’ll note the absence of a Roderick.”

She turned to Botuna.  “My father refuses your passage.  You have until nightfall to vacate yourself from our lands.”

“But –” protested Botuna.

“You heard me.  We’re done here.”

She strode away, her hips undulating like two ocean swells meeting and combining forces.  She did not look back, but I felt certain she knew she was being watched, in that special way that even a woman who is alone in her bathtub knows that there is an eye at the keyhole.

Botuna sank to the ground.  He’d had much practice of this maneuver, the past three weeks.  He had grown quite masterly at it.

“Cheer up, old man,” I said.  “We’ll simply go around Hecate’s territory.”

“That,” said Botuna, “is an extra two thousand miles.”

“And that’s a lot?” I almost asked, but thought better of it.  Botuna seemed shaken enough.  Confidence was what was needed, and Giles Ponsonby is nothing if not brimming with confidence.  “Two thousand or ten thousand, it’s all the same to me,” I said with a roguish smile.  “We’ll find the Garden of Eden or die trying!”

As soon as I’d said this I wondered if possibly I ought not to have phrase it as an either/or proposition, for it was equally likely that we would do neither; or both.

Botuna shifted, on hands and knees, back toward the main body of our camp, and I retreated into my tent, but then I heard him shout “Bwana!” and my soul rejoiced, for I envisioned the vision returning, her arms thrown wide, her happy face no longer predatory but ready, willing, and able — but when I opened the flaps there was only Botuna, with a letter in his hand.

“Apologies, Bwana, I forgot.  A courier delivered this special this morning.”

He took aim and flung the envelope into the air.  It spiraled like a leaf in a windstorm and for an instant appeared headed for the crocodile-infested depths of the moat, but at the last moment it caught a gust of wind and dropped at my feet.

I retrieved it and examined its face.  From my wife — posted before I’d even left England.  How could she have guessed my destination?  A man’s wife knows where he is at all times, my father once told me, a finger alongside his nose.  A word to the wise…

Ensconced in the safety of my tent — I had heard the cocking of rifles outside, and so beat a judicious retreat — I sliced open an end of the envelope and removed the missive within.

My dearest Giles, it read, I trust this letter finds you well.  I myself am worried sick about you, as always occurs when you are off on one of your expeditions, even if this is your very first one.  You may suspect that in my distress I might throw myself into the arms of another man, someone like Johnny the cabdriver, or Grant from your club, but I want to assure you that if such a rendezvous were to eventuate it would be over my most strenuous objections.  I have never yet broken my vows to you and, while I am writing this correspondence, have no intention of doing so.  You are in my heart forever, or until your death, for which I pray nightly.  Against which I pray nightly!  Oh, when will they invent an erasing device for an inkquill!  Ha ha!  Très heureux!  But seriously, darling, do take good care of yourself, and don’t worry about me.  My needs will be met.  I wish you every success and a long, long expedition!  Don’t hurry home on my account!  Your loving spouse,

Pernilla.

P.S. Enclosed please find this month’s cheques requiring your signature.

I set the letter aside and brushed a tear from beneath my eye.  How lucky am I, I thought, to have wedded such a woman!

And then I paused, wondering how I could have doubted her, and why it was that I had awoken to the sound of my own heart breaking.  Had I been mistaken?  Had it been gunfire?  One of the porters hoping against hope for a lucky shot?  Or had I been snoring so loudly that I had awakened myself with the thunder of it?

I laughed.  How little we grasp of our own hearts, if so readily we confuse aught else for their sundering!

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